For many countries, the tourism industry is an economic backbone that provides essential income and employment; but more than this, it can also push a country to preserve and invest in its culture and heritage. By protecting historic buildings, maximising modern infrastructure and directing more funds and attention to the arts, tourism can inspire and enable a country to be the best version of itself. We spoke with Waleed Al Saeedi, Director of Procurement about his role and responsibilities at the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi (DCT Abu Dhabi).
When the ‘tourism industry’ is responsibly managed, it can support an area in flourishing, allowing it to not only create jobs but protect and contribute to the history, art and innovation that exists. This is the case for the UAE’s Abu Dhabi, which is overseen by DCT Abu Dhabi to not only be profitable in terms of income for the city, but also to be enriching in other ways: DCT Abu Dhabi’s mandate from the Abu Dhabi Government is to build and grow a tourism industry in Abu Dhabi and ensure the preservation and exposition of the emirate’s heritage, whether it be physical sites or trades and traditions such as poetry and dance. However, DCT Abu Dhabi’s role goes even further, as one of its core objectives is establishing Abu Dhabi as a cultural centre in the region.
To develop the tourism industry for the capital, DCT Abu Dhabi must oversee two key areas: firstly, Abu Dhabi must be able to run this industry in an efficient, operational manner; and secondly, it must be a culturally rich city that is appealing to visit and explore. Waleed explained these two aspects down for us: “First, consider the tourism mandate: creating, or supporting the creation of infrastructure, developing people who can work in the industry, and cooperating with other government agencies and the private sector to achieve the mandate. On the cultural side, the Abu Dhabi Government’s agenda is just as ambitious but less quantifiable. DCT Abu Dhabi exists in part to preserve and communicate Abu Dhabi’s cultural heritage, and to support artistic and cultural education, because these cultural centres and programmes become tourist attractions. For example, New York University Abu Dhabi has a programme for training museum curators and art restoration experts. We are looking here at radically new competencies and careers for people.”
Abu Dhabi has many cultural points of appeal that make it stand out as a tourist destination, and it is DCT Abu Dhabi’s job to support the operation, preservation and promotion of these sites. These sites include the Louvre Abu Dhabi museum, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi museum, Qasr Al Hosn, the Al Ain Museum, and others, not to mention a range of local sites from the famous dates market right through to the Qasr Al Watan Library, located in the Presidential Palace. There aren’t just man-made sites to be seen, either; “The desert outside Abu Dhabi and Al Ain is beautiful – where else in the world can you stay in a luxury hotel right next to sand dunes that are several hundred metres high?”
As a country, the UAE also has other sources of appeal when it comes to attracting holiday makers. In terms of its location, it is a convenient destination from many directions; you can reach Abu Dhabi within six hours from Europe, Russia, East Africa and India, and from China the journey is not much further. The country’s biggest sources of overseas visitors are India and China, which Waleed credits partly to their proximity and, in both cases, a relaxation of visa laws that makes travel between the UAE and these two countries far easier. Abu Dhabi also receives many visitors from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman, and cruise ships pulling into Abu Dhabi Port seems on track to become a growing source of holiday-makers. As destinations go, it is probably one of the safest the world has to offer, with security standards extremely high throughout the UAE, particularly in the capital.
A key element in achieving DCT Abu Dhabi’s goals is through the procurement of complex services and products to build, preserve, maintain and run all of these locations, and as this is Waleed’s department, he was able to go into detail with us about this crucial aspect of the organisation: “Procurement is a strategic player in achieving DCT Abu Dhabi’s goals. Our role goes in two directions: out, into the market, where we capture cost trends, understand the demographics of the supply base locally and internationally and leverage that for our internal customers; and inwards where we work proactively with the tourism and cultural sectors to obtain best value on the use of their budgets.”
The organisation focusses on Abu Dhabi, but it also looks beyond its walls, both towards its potential tourist market, and also to the wider organisations and individuals it can work with, be these airlines, architects or artists. By working with talent both within the UAE and beyond, it can bring out the very best that Abu Dhabi’s potential has to offer. “For instance, we worked closely with Agence France Museum for Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi as well as the British Museum for the Sheikh Zayed Museum. Partnerships of this kind have helped us to deliver outstanding, world renowned achievements to Abu Dhabi.”
As well as these grand overseas partnerships, DCT Abu Dhabi has set up a host of local and international partnerships that provide niche, essential services. “For example, we have formed a long-term relationship with a supplier who specialises in transporting and handling antiques and art works, to supply Louvre Abu Dhabi and other exhibitions. We also work with specialised design and building firms to restore forts and houses of great cultural and historical significance, and we have associations with the Bayreuth Festival and other musical groups, symphonies and ballets around the world, allowing us to bring incredible art and performances to the Emirate.
“However, international partnerships can be challenging for several reasons. First, different laws can apply in each jurisdiction. Second, overseas firms may have strategic reasons for focusing on one area or another, potentially reducing their commitment to business in Abu Dhabi. Finally, the purpose of the partnership may expose us to depending on the partner’s expertise. This last point is especially relevant as we look to avoid developing a dependency on a global supply chain, in order to grow local business and expertise.”
DCT Abu Dhabi’s mandate from the Abu Dhabi Government is not focused purely on the success of its tourism industry, but on how this industry then impacts Abu Dhabi and the UAE as a whole; this wider look therefore puts great emphasis on the development of local businesses. DCT Abu Dhabi is therefore tasked by the government to “engage with and develop a sustainable, local supplier base”, as Waleed tells us – a task which falls firmly with the procurement department. On top of this, Waleed is one of the founding members and chair of the Abu Dhabi Sustainable Procurement Group – a group dedicated to initiating sustainable procurement policies and working on methods to support local firms.
This is a worthy goal and one Waleed is personally committed to: “Fundamentally, I believe we need to keep in mind that although we, the Emiratis, are an ancient people, the UAE is a young country in terms of its infrastructure and business community. There are gaps in the local supply base and so DCT Abu Dhabi, like other Abu Dhabi Government entities, has been tasked with creating a market for firms that can support the tourism and culture sectors. It is a long-term goal, because we are talking about transforming part of Abu Dhabi’s economy from that of largely being a consumer of foreign products and services to being able to compete on our own. DCT Abu Dhabi is an important part of this transformation, given the significance of the tourism and culture sectors to Abu Dhabi’s plans, so I am extremely proud and privileged to be a leader in this transformative time for the Emirate.”
As well as DCT Abu Dhabi’s responsibility to the workers of Abu Dhabi as a whole, it also has a responsibility to its own staff. Currently, the organisation employs around 1200 people, and is proud to state that it has been its policy to have gender-equal hiring and pay practices since before this became compulsory for all government entities within the country. The organisation works closely with its staff to make sure they are developing and are well looked after; this input ranges from access to education and further training, to a Wellness Program designed by DCT Abu Dhabi’s HR team to offer workshops and seminars on healthy living.
As for Waleed, he has been DCT Abu Dhabi’s Director of Procurement since 2013. His current role has involved building a professional, high-performing, globally-recognised procurement team, and supporting DCT Abu Dhabi’s business units in achieving their mandates. Prior to 2013, he also played a part in guiding the merger of three distinct organisations into DCT Abu Dhabi as it exists today, and reprised this role during an organisational restructuring in 2018. It is the former duty that he sees as his foremost responsibility, however; not only the formation of his team, but the ongoing leadership of them. “It is my job to enable people to do their part; this starts by helping them to see what is possible and what they are capable of, and looking for new and effective tools that will empower them to do that.”
When it comes to nurturing a team, an industry or an area, Waleed has learnt that the key, once you have pulled all of the elements DCT Abu Dhabi monitors together, is patience:
“One thing that I have learned in my career is that instant changes or quick results are usually not achievable. No director has the luxury of starting from scratch; one has to develop their team, recruit carefully, motivate and recognise potential. So, what is my philosophy or strategy for achieving that? Well, it requires patience, because people are not easily moulded and, unlike systems, they cannot be designed to perfection. Changing and achieving great levels of performance requires time, patience and steady, unwavering commitment from management.”
This is true of not only people, but an industry as a whole, and it is this patient dedication that DCT Abu Dhabi applies to the continued celebration and growth of Abu Dhabi’s tourism industry and the businesses supporting it. The organisation has the fortunate task of promoting a city that is already striking and filled with reasons to visit, but with this comes layers of responsibility that it carries out with a dedication and passion worthy of Abu Dhabi.